When Rachel Seiffert was growing up in Oxford in the seventies, she was bullied for being German. "Even before I knew what a Nazi was, I knew they were bad and that all Germans were Nazis," she says.
"Oxford is very multicultural, partly because of the university, and I remember I always wanted to be another kind of foreigner -- so long as it wasn't German -- so I could be a good foreigner rather than a bad one."
Dressed in a dark denim shift dress with a brown clip holding back her short chestnut hair, Seiffert, 30, looks more like a shop assistant in Marks and Spencer than a writer whose novel, The Dark Room -- a stunning trilogy of linked stories about the Holocaust -- has been sold in nine countries, received rave reviews from British, American and Canadian newspapers and a flurry of film options.
She wants people to read her book, but success for her means being able to sell her book without meeting the press. "I think I am much more aware now that you are being paid partly for the manuscript you deliver and partly for the service you provide afterwards in publicizing it," she says in a Toronto hotel bar over a cup of coffee, a glass of mineral water and a handful of nuts. Her hope is that The Dark Room (Knopf) will ride so high on the bestseller lists that next time, if there is a next time, she will be able to say to her publishers, as Gabrielle Roy so famously said decades ago to Canadian publisher Jack McClelland: "I'll write them, you sell them."
The loss would be mine, for Seiffert is that rarity, a fine writer who is an articulate and intelligent critic of her own work. The book consists of three separate, but thematically linked stories that use memory and photographic images to explore denial and individual accountability.
Helmut, the first story, is about delusion and the longing for acceptance. It follows a young man's life from his birth in Berlin in 1921 through the collapse of The Third Reich in the spring of 1945. Born with a deformed right arm, Helmut surmounts his disability in the nurturing shelter of his parents' love and the gentle training of a local photographer -- until Hitler comes to power. Helmut is unfit for military service and spends his time documenting the rise of Nazism, although he never realizes the implications of the images he is recording. Bullied and ostracized because of his handicap, Helmut finally gains acceptance as a leader of a desperate brigade of old men and Hitler youth as the Russian tanks roll into the capital.
Lore, the second story, is about denial. It opens in 1945 immediately after the war has ended. The main character, the teenage daughter of a Waffen SS officer, has unthinkingly accepted the trappings of Nazi ideology. Now her father is missing, later to be captured and imprisoned by the Russians, and her mother has been taken prisoner by the Americans. As Lore treks to her grandmother's home in Hamburg, with her four younger brothers and sister in tow, she joins thousands of refugees marching across Germany and sees for herself the horrific evidence of the Nazi terror. All she wants, when she finally reaches her grandmother, is to look forward to a time "when there will be no more ruins, only new houses, and she won't remember any more how it was before."
Micha, the final story, is about guilt and reconciliation. It begins in 1997 and is set partly in Frankfurt and partly in Belarus, the former Nazi-occupied territories. Micha is a schoolteacher who is obsessed with disinterring the Nazi past of his much-loved and long-since-deceased grandfather. The rest of his family, including his partner, a Turkish immigrant, wants him to leave the past alone, but he can't. Eventually he steals a honeymoon photograph from his grandmother's album and travels to Belarus to see if he can find any survivors who can condemn his grandfather's behaviour or exonerate him.
Long before she wrote a word, Seiffert had put out feelers into her own family's past -- her mother is German and her father is an Australian of German descent. Her parents met when her father went to Germany to study. Eventually they married and settled in England where he taught German at Oxford. "And that's enough," she says with a laugh, cutting off conversation about her father and her older brother.